Preparing Middle-School Students Long term for the SAT and ACT

The following article was adapted from a recent interview with Mr. Buffer about how to prepare middle school students for the SAT and ACT.

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Question for Mr. Buffer:

What can I do to help my middle school student prepare long-term for the SAT and ACT?

Mr. Buffer:

That’s a good question. And I feel to answer it fully, I have to give some relevant background information.

One thing we have to remember is that when students take the SAT and ACT it is assumed that they know or have learned certain things. The tests are not meant to throw material at them that they weren’t supposed to have learned in high school. People often think it’s intended to be a special test that’s separate from what students are learning in school. Often, it is experienced just that way because learning across the nation, even across states, is not pedagogically or curricular unified. One major problem, for example, is that most high schools can’t cover, in depth, every bit of math that students are supposed to learn. They can’t cover every grammatical concept to the level they should, with students learning imperative, specific, and necessary vernacular, either. They might cursorily go over this required curriculum in middle school or even high school, but there is no time for students to learn everything as thoroughly as is needed to be fully prepared for what is to come in their future, high-stakes standardized tests. This impasse is where, I feel, our learning center has been so helpful because we have helped to fill in these gaps. Having worked and taught in the public schools, having a Masters Degree in Educational Theory and Practice, and founding, owning and directing, the Cambridge Learning Center of New Jersey, I am keenly aware of what students are often not getting and learning in school.

Additionally, students go to very different high schools. Some high schools are more rigorous than others in the books they read. Some high schools are much less stringent than others in the books they read. Because this is so varied across schools, and even in individual classrooms, and the level of exposure to different material is so varied for middle school and high school students, not all students come prepared equally for the test. Or, they are part of an education system that is not super rigorous or where they aren’t urged to read a lot of nonfiction books, or maybe the particular teacher the student has isn’t inclined to want to read certain kinds of material because they as educators don’t have a strong preference for it.

So, not every student gets the same education all the time. Some students, many who are highly performing in schools, are often shocked when they come here (to Cambridge) for enrichment and for SAT/ACT prep, how much they don’t know. For instance, when a high school student goes to take the SAT Math II subject test, it is assumed that they have comprehensively learned laws of sines and cosines. Some high schools don’t cover trigonometry as well as others do, though, so we often find ourselves filling in many learning gaps on such topics.

So, now that I have given you some valuable background information, we will get to your core question of: “What can middle school students’ parents do to prepare long-term for the SAT and ACT?” Here are some ideas parents can keep in mind and start to integrate, and in our next segment I will expand upon these further:

Reading Varied Material: First, urge your child to be reading varied material. They can read grade-appropriate fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biographies, and science books. Many parents do not advise their children to read outside of the child’s comfort zone. Don’t be complacent with this! Push them into their discomfort zones! It is not always best for students to get comfortable with one kind of genre because when it comes time for the SAT/ACT they will have to be used to reading multiple types of material. I think the Harry Potter series and other series are great, for instance, but students can get so hooked on particular content or styles of writing, that it can hinder their academic and personal growth, including language and vocabulary acquisition.
I have seen many students held back because of their not varying their reading, thus keeping them lacking in important foundational knowledge. At Cambridge, we vigorously strive, in my Reading Program, to regularly diversify students’ reading exposure as part of our Reading Program.

Newspaper Reading: I also recommend middle-school students begin to read a local paper daily, if possible. This practice can be a very helpful way of them not just being informed but also learning new vocabulary and interesting facts regularly. Additionally, students should strive to read some op-ed articles that are at their reading level, in addition to news stories. The Star-Ledger in New Jersey is an excellent choice for this activity. This student practice can also be a great impetus for family discussions.

Summer Upkeep, Maintenance, and Foundational Strengthening: It is an unfortunate fact that just because students were promoted to the next grade level, it doesn’t mean they fully learned the material. Students, whether on vacation or at home, should study and review their learning from the previous school year, and if possible get summer tutoring help to plug needed holes in fundamentals understanding. At Cambridge, our Pro-Active Summer Program helps with this, but even if students can’t attend this, I always urge parents to get them review materials and to have them regularly study and review. Unfortunately, if students are moved on to the next grade level without fundamentals correction, the adverse effects can be cumulative and will affect their high school and SAT/ACT performance, and thus these students’ futures.

Implementing this tip each summer, though, will help students be more prepared for the SAT and ACT by keeping their Reading, Writing, and Math skills sharp.

In closing, let me just remind you that the SAT and ACT tests are assuming students will have learned certain things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is so. Varied reading and bringing them for enrichment outside of school to mitigate the effects of overcrowded classrooms can be very helpful. Whether fair or not, the SAT and ACT are important parts of the college admissions process and integrating these tips and other helpful advice will help prepare students for their future.

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